Interview with Essam al-Arian, member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Bureau
What are the Brotherhood’s priorities regarding political participation, particularly after the election of the new Executive Council, which many had expected to focus more on internal organization?
I think that what happened was the complete opposite of that was expected, for a number of reasons. We remained involved in national and pan-Arab issues, particularly the Palestine question, the threat to al-Aqsa, and the Gaza siege. We participated in the Shura Council midterm elections, with the same number of candidates we put forth in the last People’s Assembly elections. We continued our coordination with a number of political forces, opening up to them, visiting them and supporting some of their candidates in the Shura Council midterm elections.
This is evidence that some observers write hastily, without accurate information. Or maybe these are the wishes of some, that the Brotherhood will withdraw from political and public life. It also shows an ignorance of the nature of the Brotherhood’s work. The Brotherhood does not work according to the vision of a new Guide or a ExecutiveBureau. The Brotherhood works according to ongoing plans, which it sometimes makes public, and to which state authorities have access. These plans are not secret, but rather are well-known and are implemented. One of the most important pillars is that the Brotherhood adopts the principle of comprehensive reform in all aspects of life, meaning active participation in every field: political, economical, social, cultural, intellectual, and others. This comprehensive reform begins with constitutional and political reform, which requires participation in the general elections and an active presence in formal political institutions, and this is what the Brotherhood applies. Comprehensive constitutional and political reform cannot take place through the effort of the Brotherhood alone; there must be an effort by all political forces. This means that we reach out to other parties in these elections. We visited five or six parties, while three other parties visited us. In the Shura elections, we supported six candidates in five provinces from five different political forces, as well as one independent Christian candidate. He ran in Asyut; this was the second time we backed a Christian there. Asyut is known for tensions between Muslims and Christians. We also supported two candidates from the Tagammu’ Party, which is a leftist party that constantly attacks us, in Damietta and October 6th City. We backed a Wafdist candidate in a larger province, Daqahleya, and supported another candidate from the Ghad Party in Asyut as well, as well as a candidate from the Labor Party in Beni Sweif. This Brotherhood policy is constant; we have been following it and it will not change.
How will voter turnout affect the Brotherhood’s chances in the People’s Assembly elections?
The average Egyptian participates only to defend his economic, social, and labor rights if he has been directly wronged. Accordingly, in the past two years we have seen a growing labor protest movement in front of the Shura and People’s Assembly. Unfortunately, the average Egyptian still does not make the connection between these economic, social, and employment problems and political reform. This economic protest movement is separated from political movements. We have seen hundreds or even at times thousands of workers demonstrating when their companies are liquidated and they do not get their rights, whereas we see no more than a small number of people at the political protests that we organize.
We hope that this will be reflected in a larger voter turnout in the next elections–meaning that the average citizen realizes that if his voice is to reach the government officials, then he will have to go to the ballot box. This is particularly the case in the People’s Assembly elections because they are general, country-wide elections, thus increasing the opposition chances to succeed and to pass on the voter’s message.
Despite this separation between the labor and political protest movements, I’m optimistic that the labor movement will translate into a strong voter turnout, increasing from 27 percent in 2005 to maybe 35 percent in the upcoming elections.
If turnout goes up, this will be a big win for the political protest movement, and I mean here in the People’s Assembly elections because they always draw the most attention. Add to this the appearance of a powerful player, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, and the emergence of a new bloc, the National Association for Change. This brings to mind the appearance of the late Aziz Sidqi and the National Front for Change in 2005. We are not recreating failure, as some analysts say, but rather hope in finding a way out of these political straits.
How many candidates do you expect the Brotherhood to field in the upcoming elections?
In the People’s Assembly, there will be 508 seats contested, including those allocated for women. If we continue at the same rate at which the Brotherhood has been participating, the number of candidates could increase to nearly 200, and there will be a large share for women in these elections. In the last  elections, 165 Brotherhood members ran. This year, if we nominate 20-25 women, the number could increase to 190 or 200 candidates.
We are aspiring to more than that in the upcoming elections; our hope is that other political forces and independent figures will take the initiative and show good will towards the Brotherhood, which has reached out to them. This way, there would be broader coordination and a greater number of opposition candidates on the national level without internal competition between the opposition candidates. If the Brotherhood puts forward 190 candidates and the other opposition forces put forward 190 or 200, there will be a broad field of candidates in opposition to the current situation. But this all depends on the stance of the other political parties.
Will the Brotherhood issue a new political platform before the People’s Assembly elections, and if so, how will it differ from the platform released in 2007?
The platform issued in 2007 was a first draft of a political party platform, and was not an electoral platform. It was presented to the public, particularly the intellectual elite from across the political spectrum, in order to receive their feedback. There were some very heated discussions which the Brotherhood hosted, welcoming all the criticism aimed at them. The platform is still undergoing revision and has not yet been released in its final form, because it is linked to the revival of political life at large and the ability to have political parties that can survive and grow, particularly in a climate permitting the rotation of power. It would be pointless for people to request a political party or a party platform as long as parties exist in the barren political climate that we see now.
However, the electoral platform is already present. We have an electoral platform for the recent Shura Council midterm elections, which was discussed and fiercely attacked by the NDP. It is the only platform the NDP criticized. We have our platform with which we entered the 2005 elections, and we have our accomplishments, which of course are added on top of the Brotherhood’s accomplishments in the People’s Assembly.
I hope that the Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie, and other think-tanks can enumerate the Brotherhood’s accomplishments in the past five years in five legislative sessions, because the Brotherhood is fighting a smear campaign against its performance in the People’s Assembly. The Brotherhood are the only ones who stood up to the government’s general budget in order to expose the practices of the government in seizing insurance and pension funds, or in hiding private funds worth billions of Egyptian pounds, which the Egyptian people do not know about. The other political parties only talked about it in the press, but within the People’s Assembly nobody but the Brotherhood discussed this issue, and we were the first to do so. The Brotherhood opposed dangerous legislation that the regime tried to impose or did actually impose, such as giving the private sector the right to exploit public services and utilities, the antitrust law that was distorted by parliament, and other laws the Brotherhood opposed. Through very forceful and frequent parliamentary hearings, the Brotherhood opposed the sharp decline in utilities and services in the health, education, media, and religious endowments sectors.
The Brotherhood exerted a great deal of effort in the People’s Assembly, and there was a lot of progress made in coordination with the independent members. We had a parliamentary bloc of 103 representatives standing against the emergency law and the extension of emergency law–86 of them were Brotherhood members and the rest independents, meaning that 15 independent representatives joined. We also always had a bloc against the ruling party’s human rights violations, and a bloc standing up for national and pan-Arab issues. This will all be added onto our 2005 electoral platform. The party platform that we published in 2007 is under review and will not be released unless political life is altered to allow a chance for parties to survive and to allow for the rotation of power.
What are the most important lessons the Brotherhood has learned from the experience of political participation since 2005?
There are many lessons. We have been taking part in the elections since 1984, which is a quarter century, quite a long time. The main problem is the political stalemate in Egypt and the regime’s inability to undertake political reforms. The Egyptian regime, as a result of international pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, was forced to undertake very risky economic reforms. These led to social catastrophes, but the regime never gave in to any pressure for political reform. The People’s Assembly has very circumscribed powers and its ability to hold the government accountable is very limited. If there were free elections, there would need to be a constitutional amendment in order to rebalance parliamentary and executive powers. If parliament disagrees with the government, it is very easy to dissolve parliament, but it is difficult if not impossible to dismiss the government. This is a fundamental lesson: the rules of politics in Egypt must be changed by ending the state of emergency and allowing the freedom to form parties without limitations or conditions; allowing parliament to hold the government accountable; selecting the government from the parliamentary majority; and preventing electoral fraud. These are the fundamental rules for any political system and we believe that the Brotherhood’s ongoing participation will in the end push for real change.
Will the Brotherhood nominate a candidate in the 2011 presidential election if the constitution is amended to facilitate independent candidacies?
The Brotherhood announced that we will not have a candidate in the 2011 presidential election. We will wait for the names of the actual candidates and study their platforms before announcing our support for one candidate or lack of support for another.
However, we say clearly that voting is a duty. It is not acceptable for the Brotherhood or anyone else to avoid taking part in any general election, because that means withdrawing from politics. Some call for a boycott trying to force the regime to change the rules of the political game, but this regime has not responded to any domestic or foreign pressure in the past 30 years. The only regime responses have come as a result of participation, which forces the regime to try to improve its image. And the change that begins superficially might then turn out to be substantial. This is what we are trying to wager on, and we believe that if all of the political forces, parties, popular and political movements, and human rights organizations could make common cause and set aside their small differences, we would open a window of hope, showing that Egypt can embark upon genuine democracy or get on a path towards genuine democracy.
Arab Reform Bulletin Editor Michele Dunne conducted this interview in Cairo on May 31, 2010. Paul Wulfsberg translated the interview from Arabic.
“This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.”